Just a few months ago, Shabana Azmi kept Twitter busy when she posted an image of a dish she sampled during a trip to Italy. She called it upma, the Twitterati largely disagreed saying she couldn’t tell the difference between upma and poha. We didn’t hear of this in most parts of south India where we love our upma, one of those dishes that truly belongs to the ‘any timers’ menu in any all-day diner. It works equally well for breakfast, lunch, dinner or in between meals. With the cross pollination of cooking styles over the last few decades, it’s not unusual to stumble upon poha or sabudana upma (or maybe I should say khichdi) in urban homes in south India. However, it’s the traditional style upmas that still rule the roost here.
If etymology is your scene, the word for upma in all the south Indian languages combines salt and flour. It’s why you have uppittu (uppu for salt and pittu for flour) in Kannada or uppumavu in Tamil. Semolina (rava) is usually the go-to ingredient for upmaalmost across south India but there are quite a few iterations with an assortment of staples:
Chow Chow Bath: Old Bengaluru’s restaurants can probably take credit for combining a spicy ravauppittu (also referred to as khara bath) and kesari bath (or sheera) in a single dish that is served bisi (piping hot) for breakfast. In Karnataka, chow chow is an informal expression used for ‘mixture’. It’s possible that chow chow bath was used to describe this mix of sweet and spicy that is served with coconut chutney.
Semiya Upma: The traditional rava upma or uppitu tastes best when it’s fresh off the stove. This upma crafted with vermicelli also works for an office lunch box at a work space without a microwave oven. It’s also a popular snack at tea time.
Millet Upma: The rediscovery and growing popularity of millets especially among well-informed urban audiences is seeing a variety of upmas that cleverly use the goodness of millets. Some of these dishes have also started to make an appearance at new-age health food restaurants in Chennai and Bengaluru. Foxtail millet (thinai in Tamil/navanein Kannada) works really well for upma and involves a similar recipe as a rava upma.
Whole Wheat Upma: Popular in parts of south western Tamil Nadu for its health benefits, this upma is similar to the dalia served in northern India and is a popular dinner option (combined with fresh vegetables) especially with people who are counting their calories.
Rice Upma:Arisi upma in Tamil Nadu and akki tari uppittu in southern Karnataka, this traditional upma version is made with raw rice and is quite different from the more popular semolina version both in terms of flavour and texture.
Rice Upma Recipe
- Raw rice – half a cup
- Tur dal – 1 table spoon
- Grated coconut – one forth cup
- Red chillies – 3-4
- Cumin seeds – 1 tablespoon
- Pepper powder -one forth teaspoon
- Curry leaves – a few sprigs
- Asafoetida – one pinch
- Coconut oil – 2 table spoons
- Salt – to taste
- Mustard seeds – 1 teaspoon
- Urad dal – 1 teaspoon
- Channa dal – 1 teaspoon
- Grind (dry grind) the rice and tur dal to a coarse mixture in a blender
- Place oil in a pan. When heated add red chillies mustard urad dal, channa dal red chillies and curry leaves
- Add asafoetida and coconut when it turns and fry lightly
- Add two and half cups of water
- Add cumin seeds, pepper powder and required salt.
- Allow water to boil well
- Add the rice gradually to the mixture
- Keep stirring on slow fire till completely dry
- Serve hot (you can add a small dollop of ghee) with coconut chutney or sambar.
- Garnish with grated coconut and curry leaves
- You can also transform this into rice balls. Roll the cooked mixture and steam in an idlisteamer for about 8-10 minutes.
So the next time you crave for some light yet healthy snack, bring upma to your rescue and satisfy those hunger pangs!